As 'Greasy Mechanics' Go, So Goes the Nation


In an effort to make sense of the great angry convulsion that has given us the candidacy of Ross Perot, political theorists are busily squinting backward trying to detect any patterns in our history that no one noticed before.

As a way to predict what'll happen Tuesday, about all that can be said with confidence is that the process is more respectable than peering at tea leaves. But even so, some of these surveys by people with 20/20 hindsight have produced interesting results.

The economic historian Tracy Herrick, for example, notes that there have been only three periods in American history in which middle-class living standards declined for a decade or more. He says these were 1804 to 1821, 1852 to 1882, and 1972 until the present. Each of the first two periods ended with the middle class politically strengthened, one major political party destroyed and a vital new party in its place.

The first period, beginning with the year of Alexander Hamilton's death, saw Federalism gradually decay and the old Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson metamorphose naturally into the new Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson. The new party gave a needed voice, in particular, to skilled workers, farmers and entrepreneurial small-business people.

The second period, dominated by the Civil War, began with the collapse of the Whigs and ended with the United States firmly in the grip of the new Republican Party. Although many of the leaders of this party were rich and powerful New Yorkers, the spiritual descendants of the Federalists, the party's success was due to its appeal to the hard-working and rapidly-increasing middle class.

Abraham Lincoln, no silk-stocking himself, helped forge that link. In his unsuccessful Senate campaign of 1858 he carried and often referred to a clipping from an anti-Republican Southern newspaper. "Free Society! We sicken of the name!" thundered this organ. (Why don't newspapers thunder any more?) "What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists?"

When he debated Stephen Douglas at Galesville, Ill., the crowd waved a banner reading: Small-fisted farmers, Mudsills of Society, Greasy Mechanics for A. Lincoln. It was an important moment in the history of Republicanism. But 1882, the year middle-class living standards again began to rise, was important too. It was the year in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born.

In this election year 1992, it's hard to guess how greasy mechanics and the core of today's middle class will vote. The candidates seem to believe they could swing the election. (The filthy operatives have mostly gone into political consulting and the moon-struck theorists have jobs writing for op-ed pages. The small-fisted farm vote no longer matters much.)

Greasy mechanics voted for Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman; most of them also voted for Dwight Eisenhower. Later their ranks divided for a time, with some voting Democratic and ** some for the third-party candidacy of George Wallace, and without a working consensus they lost much of their political power. Ronald Reagan won them back, kept their loyalty for eight years and handed them over, remarkably intact, to George Bush.

This great legacy of political capital was not made casually. Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush both knew that something of value was being transferred here. But Mr. Bush didn't see that the gift was fragile. And like so many who inherit capital rather than create it, he found it easier to spend than to save.

Now winter is coming, the inheritance that looked as though it would last eight years is gone in less than four, and the spendthrift heir is politically destitute.

Today's middle-class Americans, whose good will and respect Mr. Bush has piddled away, aren't likely to vote Republican in great numbers this year. They may not look much like Lincoln's greasy mechanics, but they share similar, basically simple, expectations of their government. It should defend the nation. It should tax with restraint and spend with prudence. And it should stay off the backs of law-abiding people trying to earn a living.

Will they vote for Bill Clinton, the genial and obviously intelligent young man from Arkansas? Some will, but others will remember that whatever he says during the campaign, it is his political party that has controlled the Congress, his political party that stands for taxes and stands for regulations, and his political party that has spent the nation into a $4 trillion hole. That's quite an albatross to carry.

Or will they vote for Ross Perot, the short twangy Texan who has made a lot of money and who has spent a good chunk of it to get his name on the ballot in every state and his words, unfiltered, on national television?

Mr. Perot's proposals as advanced thus far seem pretty plain -- some good, some bad, some naive. But he seems to see the problems before the nation through ordinary middle-class eyes. He hasn't spent most of his adult life in politics or government. A vote for him is the only way available, next Tuesday, to express a heartfelt NO.

Mr. Perot can't win, the wise observers say, and perhaps they're right. But if he gets the substantial backing the polls now suggest he will, a vote for Mr. Perot on Tuesday might turn out to be a vote well used. It could be the proverbial wake-up call with a two-by-four. It could even be a first step toward the creation, in the great American tradition, of a more responsive political party. Personally, considering the alternatives, I think it's worth a try.

Peter A. Jay's column appears here each week.

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